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Our work to help water voles

A close-up of a water vole with flakes of dust on it, which is getting ready for reintroduction at Holnicote Estate, Somerset
Water vole for reintroduction at Holnicote Estate, Somerset | © National Trust Images/Phil Bruss

Once a common sight along the banks of Britain's rivers and lakes, water voles are now among our most endangered species. The National Trust is helping to protect them with land management programmes and projects to reintroduce them to the places where they once thrived.

Water voles in danger

Water voles have been in decline for several decades and are now thought to have disappeared from more than 90 per cent of the rivers, streams and lakes where they once lived.

Pollution and the loss of their natural habitats are both major contributors. But many water voles have also fallen prey to an invasive species, the American mink, which established wild populations in Britain in the 1950s after escaping from fur farms.

A water vole sitting on a rock
A water vole sitting on a rock | © National Trust Images/Steve Haywood

Why protecting water voles is important

Immortalised by 'Ratty' in children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, water voles are arguably one of Britain's most endearing animals. To see them disappear for good would be a tragedy.

But water voles are also part of complex ecosystems, meaning their presence comes with benefits for other plants and animals.

Water voles are a source of food for struggling predators like barn owls and otters. Where they graze on grasses and rushes, they create space for rare plants to grow. And they can even help reshape entire habitats.

How water voles improve wildlife habitats

Just a year after water voles were reintroduced to Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales, they had begun to make a difference.

'The water voles are already changing the look of the tarn-side streams,’ said National Trust ranger Roisin Black at the time. ‘The banks used to be straight-sided, almost like canals. But by burrowing into the banks, the voles have created much more natural-looking streams with shady pools that should be really good for invertebrates and small fish.'

In short, a place where water voles thrive will be richer in all kinds of wildlife.

A water vole swimming among some lily pads
A water vole swimming among some lily pads | © National Trust Images/Richard Bradshaw

Our work for water vole conservation

Since 2007, our countryside teams have been surveying rivers and lakes for signs of water voles in order to assess population levels and look at what actions to take.

One of our biggest successes has been a project to reintroduce water voles to England’s highest freshwater lake, Malham Tarn, in the Yorkshire Dales, after a 50-year absence.

Water vole reintroduction at Malham Tarn

Our ecologists believe the water voles there were wiped out in the 1960s by mink, which had escaped from nearby fur farms.

In 2016, with no record of mink having been seen in the area for two years, around a hundred water voles were reintroduced by our rangers in the hope that they would set up home there. Just a year later, they had spread up to a kilometer from the release site.

In 2017, another one hundred specially bred water voles were released at Malham Tarn.

Wide shot of two volunteers walking up a hillside from left to right with blue sky behind

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